In our previous article, I discussed the two-part format of the BARUCH SHEAMAR prayer. The first half is a poem about ‘blessing God’. In this piece, I’ll examine the second half, which, I believe strongly, is the original prayer. This section of our prayer was probably written by the Men of the Great Assembly, in the centuries before the Common Era. That’s because it follows the formal structure of Blessings written by this august group.
This section begins with six-word formula of blessings easily recognized by all traditional Jews: BARUCH ATA HASHEM ELOKEINU MELECH HA’OLAM, Blessed are You, O Eternal, our God, King of the Universe. This famous format always raises the question: How do we have the CHUTZPA to bless God? Well, it’s common to sidestep this problem by explaining that we’re not blessing God, per se, we are declaring that God is the source of all blessing in the cosmos. An alternative is to claim that we are utilizing the normative meaning of the BARUCH, which is to increase. In other words, it’s a request addressed to God begging that the Divine Presence be increased in this realm.
So, let’s render this phrase: O Eternal, Who is our God, increase Your Presence in this realm over which You are the King.
The middle section of our long blessing, which ends with another BARUCH ATA HASHEM, has three parts. Here is my translation of the first one: The God who is our compassionate Parent is lauded by His people, is acclaimed and glorified by His pious ones and servants.
There seems to be a lot of repetition in that sentence, but allow me to clarify. There are three different groups of people proclaiming three different types of praise. Let’s begin with the verbs of acclaim, which are italicized. According to the Etz Yosef, laud or HALLEL is listing the specific items we’re praising God for, like this morning’s sunrise or our health. The acclaim or SHEVACH are expressions of appreciation and love for God because of the incredible things performed. Finally, the glorification or PI’ER expresses our understanding of the significance of the wonders performed.
These praises are proclaimed by three different groups of individuals, which I underlined. The first group, AMI, are those who recognize the national or ethnic connection between all Jews. Next, we have the pious ones or CHASIDIM, not to be confused with the modern religious group, are those who are committed to perform every Halachic point comprehensively. Finally, we have the servants of God, AVODAV, who are always aware of their subservient connection to God our Monarch. Every group does their best to adulate our Lord.
However, undoubtedly, many of us feel inadequate to the task. What do I do if I can’t find the words? Well, the paragraph provides the answer: Quote the poetry of King David. Indeed, the main content of the PESUKEI D’ZIMRA are the Psalms of King David. Hopefully, we recite these poems with an eye toward discovering our own thoughts on the greatness of God.
Rav Soloveitchik in his explanation of this paragraph said,
In Psalms we say, ‘Who can express the mighty acts of HASHEM? Who can declare all His praise?’ (Tehillim 106:2)…The question then is, how can mortal man with his limited vocabulary even attempt to engage in such praise? How are we allowed to praise Him in our prayers? The answer is implicit in these words of our text. By invoking King David, we rely on his precedent through his composition…we are then permitted to use his words to praise God ourselves. (Rav Rosh Hashanah Machzor, p. 200-201)
The second section of this blessing’s body is our commitment to fulfill the task begun by the individuals mentioned previously. It’s all well and fine that there are groups praising God, but now we personally assume that responsibility as well. Every Jew is required to individually express their awe before the Infinite, the Omnipotent. By reciting these various forms of praise, we are, simultaneously declaring that God is our Sovereign.
The final section of the body of this blessing makes the bold proclamation that God is Unique, the One and only God in the Cosmos. Now, assuming that this blessing was indeed written in the couple of centuries before the Common Era, then this declaration was truly significant because polytheism continued to thrive in the countries where the Jews resided. But what does it signify for us who have generally never met a pagan? It is still extremely important to declare that the central force and focus in our lives remains God. We may work hard or have other forces at play in our lives, but God remains the core of our being, our sense of spiritual self.
The BARUCH SHEAMAR blessing is called a BRACHA ARUCHA, a ‘long blessing’, because it has another BARUCH ATA HASHEM at the end. Here we recite MELECH MEHULLAL BA’TISHBACHOT, King, Who is lauded (MEHULLAL) with acclaim (TISHBACHOT). Well, of course we praise with praises, don’t we? What’s the point exactly? God is praised without our saying a word. The ever creating, all powerful God is objectively being praised by the Divine handiwork itself. The greatness of God is manifest without us opening our mouths. ‘The heavens declare the honor of God, and the expanse of the heavens tells of His handiwork’ (Tehillim 19:2).
The existential reality is that ‘God is lauded’ always, but that in no way relieves us of the duty to proclaim the Divine greatness, always and strenuously. We have the need to add our feeble efforts to those of the Universe itself. We are duty bound to contribute TISHBACHOT, acclaim.
This remarkable and beautiful blessing begins the daily endeavor to laud our Lord and Maker. This effort is completed by another blessing which closes this section of our daily prayers. That blessing is called YISHTABACH, and we shall turn our attention to that prayer next.